Spotlight On … Anne Kirkham

Anne at her PhD Graduation CeremonyIn our latest ‘Spotlight On' feature, 1980 leaver Anne Kirkham writes of the challenges Withington uniforms presented to the fashion-conscious pupils of the 1970s, her memories of School, and her fascinating career path since then. 

Matters of dress inhabit my memories of Withington.  At the ‘look round' on the afternoon of 27 April 1973 we were issued with an A4 sheet headed ‘Regulations for School Uniform'.

"…In the Main School girls wear dark navy pleated skirts of the school pattern. With skirts, white blouses and dark navy knickers are worn."

"…Hats – navy velour or felt of school shape, with a school badge on the front – must be worn on the journey to and from school and on school expeditions." Whilst regulations about wearing the hat were something of a trial to the style-conscious or self-conscious and so were quite often disregarded out of sight of school, the regulation most frequently infringed – through laziness or tardiness – concerned ‘indoor-shoes': "…A pair of house-shoes (not necessarily new) with low heels and straps or laces is required to be kept at school. Outdoor shoes must not be worn in school."

Other challenges to our fashion sensibilities included the yellow and white gingham cookery apron with matching hair-band (made in needlework classes the year before) and, sharing last place, the shapeless "front fastening and butcher blue" laboratory overall and the heavy, moisture-absorbing purple jersey tracksuit – a lumpy look revived by the ‘Teletubbies' in the 1990s and possibly appealing to today's onesie- wearers.

There were highpoints though. The maroon tie proved very versatile as a belt or hair-band, as well as in various styles around the neck. The brightly coloured house belts (worn when playing for a house team) were coveted – I was and remain a passionate Lejeunite and the red belt looked well against the navy skirt.

Speaking of red and blue, and in this year of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, I remember the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977 which included a school fête day where clothes and everything else had to be red, white and blue. Events provided an opportunity to develop one's dress sense. Dr McDonald's gold and red PhD robes were notable at Founders' Day. With less panache, partly since it involved chiffon scarves sewn on to a leotard, I sported similar colours as the Pied Piper of Hamelin in Miss Boucher's third formers' enactment of Browning's poem at the summer PTA evening in 1974. In the lower fifth I managed the Bay City Rollers' first tribute band (white trousers and jackets trimmed with tartan) for a performance in the Lesser Hall. Outside of school we all had black velvet blazers. Inside school the staff of the French department merit special mention for making pinafore dresses more stylish than could have been thought possible.

I wasn't just a fashion critic at school. I received an excellent education, though I never felt a sense of being educated. I just remember having good teachers, lots of friends and lots of fun. I did not have favourite teachers and liked all subjects, more or less, which did not help much when it became necessary to contemplate life beyond Withington. I was also, I now realize, rather laid-back and immature, especially regarding ‘the future'. However, that did not mean that things turned out badly.

Without any thought-out idea of what I wanted ‘to do', I went to Manchester to read for a joint honours BSc in accountancy and computer science, graduated in 1983 and then went to Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG) and qualified as a chartered accountant in 1986.

Again I made lots of friends and had lots of fun. There were also skills to learn – some quasi-academic (writing reports, modelling complex leasing transactions), some organizational (prioritizing, completing), some personal/personnel (diplomacy, delegation, coaching). And, as should be expected, there were also challenges and demands (time, deadlines, politics). I liked the dynamism of the professional environment and so stayed at KPMG, specializing in banking and finance. In the 1990s I was the senior manager for that department in Manchester with responsibility for thirty staff and fifty clients. However, finally in the 1990s, I began to think more seriously about ‘the future'. For the most part, I really enjoyed working at KPMG and appreciated all the advantages it had afforded, but I now knew that I was working in the ‘wrong field'. I had an interest in the arts that could not be satisfied by pursuing them as a hobby. So I started afresh.

In 1991 I had enjoyed a summer sabbatical to study art history and Italian at the British Institute in Florence. In 1995 I negotiated a part-time contract with KPMG which allowed me to return to Manchester University to read for a BA in art history. I left KPMG in October 1999 to focus on the final year dissertation and graduated in July 2000. At this point I applied for a few positions in the arts sector, mostly development/fund-raising roles at galleries which I thought would utilize some of the skills honed at KPMG as well as my new degree. None was successful, so, whilst thinking about alternatives, I took three successive temporary positions – two as an accountant and one as an administrator. In 2003 I secured funding for an MA and then in 2004 for a PhD researching the discourse on art in the Middle Ages.

Obtaining a PhD is a strange experience: periods of relentless reading and note-taking, periods of frantic writing; periods when your confidence is ‘sky high', periods when it is ‘rock bottom'; strangest of all are the periods of intense thinking which give the appearance of doing nothing at all that you find difficult to justify to yourself, let alone other people. One opportunity provided by the PhD programme was the chance to act as a Researcher in Residence at Withington as part of an Arts and Humanities' Research Council initiative to showcase the work of academic research in schools. Thus early in 2007 I was excited to be working with Jen Baylis and her lower sixth and upper fourth students. For the sixth-formers it was a case of researching visual arts sources to inspire a new staging of Euripides' ‘Women of Troy'. The upper-fourths reflected on the contributions of architects and painters employed as set- or costume-designers.

The PhD was completed at the end of 2007 and I am currently a research associate in art history and visual studies at the University of Manchester where I teach aspects of medieval art to undergraduates and am involved in research projects on medieval medicine and on … medieval dress. Between January 2008 and June 2011 I was the assistant reviews editor for the UK journal of professional art historians. An article on St Francis of Assisi has been published and I am currently working on a book proposal.

Throughout all this time I have maintained links with Withington, serving as treasurer on the Senior Club (as it then was) Committee for twelve years until 2001. I rejoined the newly renamed Withington Onwards Committee in 2009. The alumnae events and committee meetings are wonderful opportunities to meet with friends, old and new, and to catch up on the school's news. Loving the school as I do, I was honoured and delighted to be asked last year by the Withington Onwards Committee to serve as its representative on the Board of Governors. It's a pleasure.

Published: 21st February 2012